As epicentre of global economy shifts East, new art centres open

Judith Greer, Associate Director of International Programmes for the UAE-based Sharjah Art Foundation. Image copyright Duncan McKenzie.

Judith Greer, Associate Director of International Programmes for the UAE-based Sharjah Art Foundation, spoke at Asia House. Image copyright Duncan McKenzie.

As epicentre of global economy shifts East, new art centres open

03 August 2015

By Naomi Canton

Art centres are proliferating in the Middle East and Asia, as the epicentre of the global economy shifts East.

Associate Director of International Programmes for the United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah Art Foundation Judith Greer said, in a recent talk at Asia House, that the Western-centric view of art and artists that had presided until the 1990s, was now being re-examined and challenged.

Greer, who is a patron of numerous art institutions and on the Board of Trustees of the London based-Artangel arts organisation, lived in Japan between 1983 and 1993, during which time she worked for six years as International Director at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

She has been working for the Sharjah Art Foundation for the past eight years. “I travel a lot to meet artists and see their art work and to collaborate with artists in other cities. There is an endless struggle to keep up and stay informed and be engaged with what is happening around the world, and there is constant debate about the proliferation of biennales, triennials, art fairs, auctions, new institutions and new art initiatives around the world,” she said.

According to Greer, non-Western artists have been under-represented in the global art world. She said that research by an art newspaper in the USA found that between 2007 and 2013, out of nearly 600 art exhibitions submitted by 68 museums, 30 per cent of them featured artists from just five galleries.

At the time of her talk she had recently returned from Okwui Enwezor’s 56th Venice ‘All the World’s Futures’ Biennale where, she said, half the artists being featured were – for the first time – from outside Western Europe and North America. “It had a distinguished Nigerian curator and a wide range of ‘non white’ artists,” she said.

“That Biennale challenged the Western-focused art world,” she added.

“America presents exhibitions totally dominated by the old traditional art world establishment whereas Venice does exactly the opposite to this dominant Western-centric viewpoint,” she said. But for Greer the change is not fast enough. “It’s surprising to me how slowly and how little things have actually changed over the past 30 years,” she added.

Co-author of Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), she lectures internationally on the topics of collecting, arts patronage and the Middle East art and cultural world.

“I remember the 1980s Japan,” she said. “Most people did not know what was going on in Japan at that time. Then the Walkman came to popularity and in about 1983 journalists came from everywhere to cover Japanese contemporary culture. It was the Japanese miracle. It was interesting to watch how art followed that economic miracle, and now looking back from today, I think that was the first big international art boom. Over the next 30 years there has been an economic and cultural shift and we have seen the same thing happen across the Middle East, Far East and Turkey with new art centres coming up across the world,” she said. “Istanbul and the UAE are emerging as major art centres and Mumbai, Shanghai and Korea are seeing a lot of activity – there is the Dhaka Art Summit and the Kochi Biennale. I find it really difficult to understand how slow Western art has been to embrace all this,” she added.

“By the 1990s as the Japanese miracle came to a close, it was really noticeable how masses of curators from the West came to Japan to stake a claim certain sections of contemporary art world and types of funding. Is it the ability to get money that drives art? If Japan had not had an economic miracle would the art have followed? Was that the right way for people to learn about Japan?” she asked the audience.

“Even in the early 1980s people spoke about art in the context of the ‘new Japan’ – that is still happening today. It is interesting how far things have not moved on!” she added.

After the end of the economic miracle, funding dried up and people in the art world became less interested in working with Japan, she said.

“Attention then turned to China. China was the next big thing. All the curators I knew in Japan were now going to China. People started to invest in Chinese art. All of a sudden everyone wanted to know about Chinese pop and political art,” she added.

In 1993 the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) was first staged at the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia. It remains the only major exhibition series in the world to focus on the contemporary art of Asia, the Pacific, and Australia. “It started to use a lot of Chinese art,” she said. “Then in 1996 the Shanghai Biennale started. Then in 1998 the Asia Society in New York opened ‘Inside Out: New Chinese Art’ – the first major exhibition to present the dynamic new art being produced by artists in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“In 2002 the first commercial art gallery opened in Beijing – that whole decade – the 1990s – is a very Chinese moment,” Greer added.

“By the late 1990s and early 2000s people that I knew were talking about investing in Chinese art. That whole notion of travelling around and exploring these alternative art worlds became the done thing so Latin America, India and Middle East,” she said.

In May 2006, Christie’s held its first auction of International Modern & Contemporary Art in Dubai.

“And all of a sudden people started to think about Middle East art investment,” she said. “That Dubai auction created a huge amount of Western interest. The first Art Dubai [a leading international art fair] took place the following year,” she pointed out .

Since 1993, the Department of Culture and Information of the Emirate of Sharjah has hosted an international Art Biennial in the city of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE and its third largest city. The aim is to encourage contacts between artists, and art institutions and organisations of the Arab countries and to promote exchange with art scenes in other parts of the world.

“It was not until 2003 that the Sharjah Biennial became something the West could understand. It took that much time.,” Greer said.

The declared goal of the organisers of the 6th Sharjah Biennial in 2003 was to introduce a ‘new era for contemporary art in the Gulf’. It is now run by the Sharjah Art Foundation and Sharjah Biennial 12 took place this year.

“In the UAE the Emirati national population is less than 20 per cent of the population. It’s a young country – there is not much art education. If we only focused on Emirati art we would hold a lot of really bad exhibitions. It’s a mistake to prioritise nationality over the quality of the work,” she said, explaining why they featured international artists.

“Big Western curators come to Sharjah to see what’s happening there so these events have become a place where people go not only to see art but also to meet artists,” she said. “I think small collaborations and supporting publications is a productive way to help create some kind of legacy for artists. Biennales are important because of the connections people make,” she said.

“When I was in Japan artists always felt that they have to go to New York to make it but I don’t think that’s true anymore. A lot of artists I know can’t travel to the USA, they can’t get visas or don’t like the way they are treated – most of the ones I know would rather be in Europe such as London or or Paris – there is definitely a shift in how people perceive whose opinions are important. London is more open than New York and that has has affected the shift in art centres,” she concluded.

To listen to the audio of Judith Greer’s talk at Asia House click below:-

Asia House is holding its first ever Fortnight of Film this August. Come and munch free popcorn (thanks to Ten Acre sponsorship) whilst watching documentary films set in Asia!

Kicking off the fortnight on Thursday 13 August will be Mahout – The Great Elephant Walk (88mins), winner of the Best Film Award at the 2014 London Independent Film Festival. Mahout follows the story of Tim Edwards, who needs to relocate four elephants and their mahouts (a person who works with, rides and tends an elephant) between two national parks in southern Nepal.

On Tuesday 18 August we will screen The Silk Road of Pop (53 mins), a portrait of the explosive pop music scene among the Uyghur community in China’s Xinjiang Province. For more information about both films click here.